History of early Christianity
The earliest followers of Jesus comprised an apocalyptic, Second Temple Jewish sect, which historians refer to as Jewish Christianity. Early Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism during the first two centuries of the Christian Era; it established itself as a predominantly gentile religion in the Roman Empire. Although Paul's influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than that of any other New Testament author, the relationship of Paul and Judaism remains a matter of dispute.[clarification needed]
In the Ante-Nicene Period (literally before Nicaea), following the Apostolic Age, both incredible diversity and unifying characteristics lacking in the apostolic period emerged simultaneously. Part of the unifying trend was an increasingly harsh rejection of Judaism and of Jewish practices. By the beginning of the Nicene period, the Christian faith had spread throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, and to North Africa and the East.
Historians commonly use the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and Emperor Constantine I's toleration and promotion of Christianity in the Roman Empire to mark the end of early Christianity and the beginning of the era of the first seven ecumenical councils.
The Jewish messiah concept has its root in the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd century BC to 1st century BC, promising a future leader or king from the Davidic line who is expected to be anointed with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age and world to come. The Messiah is often referred to as "King Messiah" (Hebrew: מלך משיח, translit. melekh mashiach) or malka meshiḥa in Aramaic.
Historian Hayim Hillel Ben-Sasson has proposed that the "Crisis under Caligula" (37–41) was the "first open break" between Rome and the Jews. According to Josephus, resistance to Roman administration of Judea province began with the formation of the Zealots during the Census of Quirinius of AD 6, although full scale open revolt did not occur until the First Jewish–Roman War in AD 66.
Judaism at this time was divided into antagonistic factions. The main camps were the Pharisees, Saducees, [Essenes] and Zealots. This led to further unrest, and the 1st century BC and 1st century AD saw a number of charismatic religious leaders, contributing to what would become the Mishnah of rabbinic Judaism, including Yohanan ben Zakkai and Hanina ben Dosa.
Ministry of Jesus
The Gospel accounts show the ministry of Jesus as falling into the pattern of sectarian preachers with devoted disciples. According to the Gospel writers, Jesus preached for a period of one to three years when he was in his early 30s, in the early 1st century AD. The gospels give Jesus' method of teaching as involving parables, metaphor, allegory, proverbs, and a small number of direct sermons such as the Sermon on the Mount. His ministry of teaching, healing the sick and disabled, and performing various miracles culminated in his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities in Jerusalem (but see also Responsibility for the death of Jesus). Shortly thereafter, a strong belief in Jesus' resurrection spread rapidly through Jerusalem, beginning with his closest disciples, which led up to the traditional Day of Pentecost. This event provoked the Apostles to embark on a number of missionary campaigns to spread the "Good News", following the Great Commission handed down by Jesus.
The Christian church sees the Apostolic Age as the foundation upon which its whole history is built. This period, roughly dated between the years AD 30 and 100, produced writings traditionally attributed to the direct followers of Jesus Christ (the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers collections) and is thus associated with the apostles and their contemporaries.
Earliest Christianity took the form of a Jewish eschatological faith. The apostles traveled to Jewish communities around the Mediterranean Sea, and attracted Jewish converts. Within 10 years of the death of Jesus, apostles had spread Christianity from Jerusalem to Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Cyprus, Crete, Alexandria and Rome. The Acts of the Apostles reports that the early followers continued daily Temple attendance and traditional Jewish home prayer. Other passages in the canonical gospels reflect a similar observance of traditional Jewish piety such as fasting, reverence for the Torah (generally translated as "the Law" in English translations of the Bible) and observance of Jewish holy days.
In the mid-1st century, in Antioch, the Apostle Paul began preaching to gentiles. The new converts did not follow all "Jewish Law" (generally understood to mean Mosaic Law as the Halakha was still being formalized at the time) and refused to be circumcised, as circumcision was considered repulsive in Hellenistic culture. The resulting circumcision controversy was addressed at the Council of Jerusalem about the year 50. Paul, who was vocally supported by Peter, argued that circumcision was not a necessary practice. The council agreed that converts could forgo circumcision, but other aspects of "Jewish Law" were deemed necessary. Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. According to Alister McGrath, Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus and addressed the issue with great detail in Galatians 3. The rift between Christianity and Judaism continued to grow and the relationship between Paul and Judaism and the topic of Biblical law in Christianity is still disputed today. The Council of Jamnia c. 85 is often stated to have condemned all who claimed the Messiah had already come, and Christianity in particular. However, the formulated prayer in question (Birkat haMinim) is considered by other scholars to be unremarkable in the history of Jewish and Christian relations. There is a paucity of evidence for Jewish persecution of "heretics" in general, or Christians in particular, in the period between 70 and 135. It is probable that the condemnation of Jamnia included many groups, of which the Christians were but one, and did not necessarily mean excommunication. That some of the later church fathers only recommended against synagogue attendance makes it improbable that an anti-Christian prayer was a common part of the synagogue liturgy. Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries.
The disciples were first called "Christians" in Antioch (as related in Acts 11:26). Accordingly, "Christians" (with the variant "Chrestians") was by 49 already a familiar term, mostly in the Latin-speaking capital of the Roman Empire. As the church spread throughout Greek-speaking Gentile lands, the appellation took prominence, and eventually became the standard reference for followers of the faith. Ignatius of Antioch was the first known Christian to use the label in self-reference and made the earliest recorded use of the term Christianity (Greek Χριστιανισμός), around AD 100.
The Christian movement was referred to as 'The Way' (της οδου) based upon the well known statement by Jesus: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." John 14:6. Consequently, it appears in the Acts of the Apostles, Acts 9:2, Acts 19:9 and Acts 19:23). Some English translations of the New Testament capitalize 'the Way' (e.g. the New King James Version and the English Standard Version), indicating that this was how 'the new religion seemed then to be designated'  whereas others treat the phrase as indicative—'the way', 'that way'  or 'the way of the Lord'. The Syriac version reads, "the way of God" and the Vulgate Latin version, "the way of the Lord".
Judaism and Christianity
During the late 1st century, Judaism was a legal religion with the protection of Roman law, worked out in compromise with the Roman state over two centuries (see Anti-Judaism in the Roman Empire for details). In contrast, Christianity was not legalized until the 313 Edict of Milan. Observant Jews had special rights, including the privilege of abstaining from civic pagan rites. Christians were initially identified with the Jewish religion by the Romans, but as they became more distinct, Christianity became a problem for Roman rulers. Around the year 98, the emperor Nerva decreed that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax upon the Jews, effectively recognizing them as distinct from Rabbinic Judaism. This opened the way to Christians being persecuted for disobedience to the emperor, as they refused to worship the state pantheon.
Jewish Christians were among the earliest followers of Jesus and an important part of Judean society during the mid- to late 1st century. This movement was centered in Jerusalem (possibly in the Cenacle) and led by James the Just. They held faithfully to the Torah and Jewish law (which was still somewhat fluid in this time period), including acceptance of Gentile converts possibly based on a version of the Noachide laws (Acts 15 and Acts 21). According to a tradition recorded by Eusebius and Epiphanius, the Jerusalem church fled to Pella at the outbreak of the Great Jewish Revolt (AD 66–70) (see: Flight to Pella).
Disputes over the Mosaic law generated intense controversy in early Christianity. This is particularly notable in the mid-1st century, when the circumcision controversy came to the fore. The issue was addressed at the Council of Jerusalem where Paul made an argument that circumcision was not a necessary practice, vocally supported by Peter, as documented in Acts 15. This position received widespread support and was summarized in a letter circulated in Antioch. Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. According to Alister McGrath, Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus and addressed the issue with great detail in Galatians 3.
There was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews, rather than a sudden split. However, certain events are perceived as pivotal in the growing rift between Christianity and Judaism. The Council of Jamnia c. 85 is often stated to have condemned all who claimed the Messiah had already come, and Christianity in particular. However, the formulated prayer in question (birkat ha-minim) is considered by other scholars to be unremarkable in the history of Jewish and Christian relations. There is a paucity of evidence for Jewish persecution of "heretics" in general, or Christians in particular, in the period between 70 and 135. It is probable that the condemnation of Jamnia included many groups, of which the Christians were but one, and did not necessarily mean excommunication. That some of the later church fathers only recommended against synagogue attendance makes it improbable that an anti-Christian prayer was a common part of the synagogue liturgy. Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries. The true end of ancient Jewish Christianity occurred only in the 5th century. Gentile Christianity remained the sole strand of orthodoxy and imposed itself on the previously Jewish Christian sanctuaries, taking full control of those houses of worship by the end of the 5th century.
Christianity throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries has generally been less studied than the periods that came before and after them. This is reflected in the fact that it is usually referred to in terms of the adjacent periods with names as such "post-apostolic" (after the period of 1st century formative Christianity) and "ante-Nicene" (before the First Council of Nicaea, 325). However, the 2nd and 3rd centuries are quite important in the development of Christianity.
There is a relative lack of material for this period, compared with the later Church Father period. For example, a widely used collection (Ante-Nicene Fathers) includes most 2nd- and 3rd-century writings in nine volumes. This includes the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Apologists, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria and the New Testament Apocrypha, among others. In contrast, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (consisting mainly of Augustine, Jerome and Chrysostom) fills twenty-eight volumes.
The developments of this time are "multidirectional and not easily mapped". While the preceding and following periods were diverse, they possessed unifying characteristics lacking in this period. 1st-century Christianity possessed a basic cohesion based on the Pauline church movement, Jewish character, and self-identification as a messianic movement. The 2nd and 3rd centuries saw a sharp divorce from its early roots. There was an explicit rejection of then-modern Judaism and Jewish culture by the end of the 2nd century, with a growing body of adversus Judaeos literature. 4th- and 5th-century Christianity experienced imperial pressure and developed strong episcopal and unifying structure. The ante-Nicene period was without such authority and was more diverse. Many variations in this time defy neat categorizations, as various forms of Christianity interacted in a complex fashion to form the dynamic character of Christianity in this era.
By the early 2nd century, Christians had agreed on a basic list of writings that would serve as their canon, see Development of the New Testament canon, but interpretations of these works differed, often wildly. In part to ensure a greater consistency in their teachings, by the end of the 1st century many Christian communities evolved a more structured hierarchy, with a central bishop, whose opinion held more weight in that city. By 160, most communities had a bishop, who based his authority on the chain of succession from the apostles to himself.
Bishops still had a freedom of interpretation. The competing versions of Christianity led many bishops who subscribed to what is now the mainstream version of Christianity to rally more closely together. Bishops would call synods to discuss problems or doctrinal differences in certain regions; the first of these to be documented occurred in Roman Asia in about 160. Some bishops began to take on a more authoritative role for a region; in many cases, the bishop of the church located in the capital city of a province became the central authority for all churches in that province. These more centralized authorities were known as metropolitan churches headed by a Metropolitan bishop. The churches in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome exerted authority over groups of these metropolitan churches.
Ante-Nicene Christian Sects, Movements and Beliefs
The Ante-Nicene period saw the rise of a great number of Christian sects, cults and movements with different interpretations of Scripture, particularly the divinity of Jesus and the nature of the Trinity. These were called heresies by the leaders of the Proto-orthodox church, but many were very popular and had large followings. Some of the major movements were:
- Gnosticism – 2nd to 4th centuries – reliance on revealed knowledge from an unknowable God, a distinct divinity from the Demiurge who created and oversees the material world.
- Marcionism – 2nd century – the God of Jesus was a different God from the God of the Old Testament.
- Montanism – 2nd century – relied on prophetic revelations from the Holy Spirit.
- Adoptionism – 2nd century – Jesus was not born the Son of God, but was adopted at his baptism, resurrection or ascension.
- Docetism – 2nd to 3rd century – Jesus was pure spirit and his physical form an illusion.
- Sabellianism – 3rd century – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes of the one God and not the three separate persons of the Trinity.
- Arianism – 3rd to 4th century – Jesus, as the Son, was subordinate to God the Father.
Spread of Christianity
Early Christianity spread from city to city in the Hellenized Roman Empire and beyond into East Africa and South Asia. Apostles traveled extensively, establishing communities in major cities and regions throughout the Empire. The original church communities were founded by apostles (see Apostolic see) and numerous other Christian soldiers, merchants, and preachers in northern Africa, Asia Minor, Armenia, Arabia, Greece, and other places. Over 40 were established by the year 100, many in Asia Minor, such as the seven churches of Asia. By the end of the 1st century, Christianity had already spread to Greece and Italy, some say as far as India, serving as foundations for the expansive spread of Christianity throughout the world. In AD 301, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first to declare Christianity as its state religion, following the conversion of the Royal House of the Arsacids in Armenia.
Despite sporadic incidents of local persecution and a few periods of persecution on an empire-wide scale, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin. There is no agreement as for how Christianity managed to spread so successfully prior to the Edict of Milan and Constantine favoring the creed and it is probably not possible to identify a single cause for this. Traditionally this has not been the subject of much research, as from a theological point of view the success was simply the natural consequence of people meeting what theologians considered the truth.
In the influential book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that the various sociological factors of Christianity which improved the quality of life of its adherents were crucial for its triumph over paganism. Another factor that may have contributed to the success of Christianity was how the Christian promise of a general resurrection of the dead combined the traditional Jewish belief that true immortality depended on the survival of the body with practical explanations of how this was going to actually happen at the end of times.
Another factor was the way in which Christianity combined its promise of a general resurrection of the dead with the traditional Greek belief that true immortality depended on the survival of the body, with Christianity adding practical explanations of how this was going to actually happen at the end of the world. For Mosheim, the rapid progression of Christianity was explained by two factors: translations of the New Testament and the Apologies composed in defence of Christianity.
Edward Gibbon in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire discusses the topic in considerable detail in his famous Chapter Fifteen, summarizing the historical causes of the early success of Christianity as follows: "(1) The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses. (2) The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth. (3) The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church. (4) The pure and austere morals of the Christians. (5) The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire."
- Ancient church councils (pre-ecumenical) – church councils before the First Council of Nicaea
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